It may seem like women have been wearing bras since the dawn of time, what with the added support they provide, but this isn’t true. Even though the first flax bra was discovered in a medieval castle more than 600 years ago, the first true bra as we know it was invented in 1859 by Henry Lesher but this was only a prototype and never took off.
The Early Bras
When 1930 rolled around, a woman named Mary Phelps Jacob created the first bra worn by women (Source: “The History of the Bra,” LulaLu Blog). In dressing for an evening event, she noticed her gown did not match in color or style with her corset, which was the customary undergarment at the time. Fashioning two silk handkerchiefs and pink ribbons for the shoulders, she unwittingly came up with the first bra. When all her female friends expressed their interest in this new invention, she started her own business. It’s unclear whether she sold the rights to Maidenform, a popular lingerie manufacturer, but this company made the first bras with formed cups right around this time, with the padded bras coming along later in the 1930s to protect the breasts of female athletes.
The Shift to Lingerie
The bra remained pretty straightforward in terms of style until the 60s and 70s came about, when a shift toward viewing the bra as more than functional began to take hold in America. The mid-1960s brought the introduction of the first breast-lifting Wonderbra, which was the brainchild of Canadian designer Louse Poirier. This came right after the trend was leaning towards more natural, sheer looks that were popular among the growing women’s movement.
French designers in the 70s took the idea of bras as lingerie another step forward and debuted them on the runways as a fashion accessory. The only place one could really find sexy lingerie up till then was in the red light district of Paris, where tacky lingerie was largely functional in nature (Source: “The Bra: An Uplifting Tale,” BBC). Now, with the fashion models sporting bras along with their garter belts and panties, lingerie became affordable for the mainstream woman. The first sports bra for fitness-conscious women came out in 1977 (Source: “History of the Bra,” Women’s Health Magazine).
Once thought of as simply a support system for the breasts, bras began to take on a whole new persona as sexual symbol, spurred on in large part by Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour that thrust her into the spotlight wearing cone-like bras and very little else. This was a turnabout from decades earlier when bras were thought to be a symbol of a repressive lifestyle. Models took center stage in padded and push-up bras that showed cleavage in an attempt to sell lingerie and clothing lines, with a totally new audience in mind this time: men. The thought was, if lingerie companies could appeal to men, those men would go out and buy their significant others beautiful bras and accessories. Hence, the “Hello Boys” campaign by Wonderbra starring model Eva Herzigova in the mid-90s created quite a stir.
Today, the bra continues to celebrate women’s sexuality, punctuated by the mainstream influences of companies like Victoria’s Secret that not only sell lingerie but also debut all the new fashions on the runway each year.